The indigenous people of the Nenets region and the exploration for oil and gas

November 1999

Asbjørn Sæbøe
(New Ventures Manager, Norsk Hydro E&P international)

North of the Arctic Circle in the European part of Russia stretches the tundra of the Nenets people, between the Komi Republic and the Pechora Sea. 125,000 square kilometers of a very flat landscape with sparse vegetation, cut by numerous large and small rivers, spotted with glacially formed lakes. On a nice summer day, from the vantage point of an airplane window, these lakes look like mirrors dropped randomly on the tundra. The vegetation is not dense, but low birch trees grow where low ridges rise from the swamps, and where larger rivers have cut into the landscape there are firs and pines. All of this gets more and more scarce as one travels further north. This is the land of the Nenets.

There are not many of them. The Nenets Autonomous Okrug has about 45,000 inhabitants. More than half of them live in the capital Naryan-Mar. The rest, living in small villages or on the tundra, include about 6000 Nenets. They breed their reindeers as they have always done, but life has become more difficult since oil and gas were found. When the oil companies moved in during the 70's and 80's it was important to find as much oil as possible in the shortest possible time. Naturally, this influenced the life of the Nenets. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Russian economy, oil and gas exploration have slowed down considerably.

The awareness of protecting the environment and the rights of the indigenous population has grown both among the authorities and within the industry. In the new license agreement there are strict rules on how to work and ways of protecting the rights of the use of the land. The international oil and gas industry wants to work closely with those already using - and living from - the tundra.

Prior to entering into a new region, oil companies always evaluate the habitat of the regions. They make environmental studies, impact assessments, and communicate with central and local authorities as well as the communities in the region where they plan to start operation. This has been done - and will continuously be done - in the Nenets Okrug.

This summer, together with the French company Total/Fina, Norsk Hydro has started up test production in the Kharyaga field, 150 km ESE of Naryan-Mar. After a testing period of 1.5 years, a possible full development of the field will be decided. To my knowledge the relationship between the international oil companies and the Nenets has been functioning very well. Those companies working in the region are paying an annual contribution to the population, a so-called social fund paid to the local authorities. Those companies which do not have any operations yet have from time to time given grants both in the form of money and supplies to those villages in need of it. I also know that companies have been trying to assist with transporting slaughtered reindeer when they have had transport into the region. These types of cooperative arrangements will most likely continue whenever it is practicable.

There is no doubt that there are many areas that might cause concern and possible conflicts between the oil companies and the indigenous people of the Arctic regions, but both parts have shown a willingness to solve the problems before they occur, and if this willingness continues, I am sure that oil fields development and oil production will be to the benefit of all of those living and working in the region.